ARLINGTON, Texas — A wild 23-20 overtime win over Cleveland on Sunday afternoon at Cowboys Stadium is an example why there are skeptics whether the Dallas Cowboys are a viable playoff contender.
The standings say that's the case. With six games left the Cowboys are only one game behind the New York Giants. But inconsistent play and glaring shortcomings raise doubt.
“A Hall of Fame pitcher told me a long time ago, ‘You have to somehow win a game when you don't have your best stuff,” said Dallas coach Jason Garrett. “I don't think we had our best stuff today, but we found a way.”
The schedule favors Dallas.
Climbing back to .500 for the first time in a month, the Cowboys (5-5) play four of their final six games at home. Only one team left on the schedule — Pittsburgh — has a winning record.
But against the Browns (2-8) the Cowboys trailed 13-0 at halftime and needed 10 first downs by penalty — nine called against Cleveland's secondary — to escape with a win in a game Dallas' beleaguered offensive line allowed quarterback Tony Romo to be sacked seven times.
“I'm not going to make any excuses for winning,” Romo said. “I know it's hard no matter who you play. At the same time, we need to play better going forward if we're going to do things we hope to achieve.”
Sparking the second-half rally was wide receiver Dez Bryant, who had a career day. The former Oklahoma State star collected 12 receptions for 145 yards, highlighted by a 28-yard touchdown that put Dallas up 17-13 with 6:46 to play.
That's when the game, arguably the Cowboys' postseason hopes, bounced back and forth.
“Anyone who was watching understood how important this win was,” Romo said. “You could feel it, the sense of urgency our team played with.”
A Dallas goal-line stand stopped the Browns three consecutive plays at the 1-yard line to protect the 17-13 lead with 1:42 to play.
The Browns, though, used all three timeouts to get the ball back at the Dallas 17-yard line following a 21-yard punt return and a Dallas horse-collar penalty.
Cleveland quarterback Brandon Weeden, the rookie from Oklahoma State, fired a 17-yard touchdown to Ben Watson to give the Browns a 20-17 lead with 1:07 left in regulation.
“We continue to battle,” Weeden said. “I don't know why we're not getting it done late. That's the frustrating part.”
After Weeden's TD pass, Dallas moved quickly down the field, aided by 50 yards on two penalties — a 35-yard pass interference and 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct. The Cowboys settled for a 32-yard Dan Bailey field goal with: 02 left in regulation to tie it.
After both teams failed to score on their initial overtime possession, Romo marched the Cowboys down for a game-winning 38-yard field goal with 6:07 left in the extra period.
Instead of a statement win for Weeden and the young, improving Browns, it was another frustrating loss. Cleveland has lost six games by seven or less points.
“Yeah, we've lost our share, but we've been in every game,” said Weeden, an Edmond Santa Fe product who had his entire family, numerous friends and OSU fans make the trip to watch him play. “You can't say we don't play hard or we don't fight. We just haven't been able to finish.”
That's also been an issue for the Cowboys. But this time they found a way to escape.
Dallas' owner Jerry Jones' response was revealing when asked if the win could provide momentum to make a run at the playoffs.
“Well, it gives us a mathematical chance,” Jones said. “As it would turn out, I liked the way we came back today. To get to 5-5 this way, a kind of strange way to earn it, you could look at it negatively. But I hope it will be a doctorate's degree for us going forward these next six games.”
Considering Dallas' suspect offensive line suffered another injury (left tackle Tyron Smith), does Garrett feel the Cowboys can find “their best stuff,” facing a short turnaround before they host Washington on Thanksgiving Day?
“You just have to keep grinding,” Garrett said. “If you ask 32 head coaches in the NFL, they would all agree with me that we can play better. This is a positive thing for our football team. Hopefully, we'll get some guys back and get going again.”